oneThe concepts, beliefs, and practices of modern Witchcraft are rooted in ancient European Paganism. Witchcraft, as it exists today, is a religion and magical system that has evolved over countless centuries. Although its basic foundational concepts appear in those of the Neolithic era, a variety of ideas and notions particular to following periods have also influenced it. These influences include the classical period, Middle Ages, Renaissance, nineteenth-century Romantic era, and the modern Wicca movement that arose in the mid-twentieth century.
Witchcraft and the
To understand the core essence of Witchcraft we must look to a time before the rise of Christianity, when the beliefs and practices of ancient Europe were unaltered by imported alien concepts. Despite the fact that European Pagans were diverse in their beliefs and practices, there is a root core commonality that speaks of something older upon which all were based. Was there once a central primitive religion to explain the similarities, or are we simply looking at the ways humankind itself commonly conceives of religious and ritual elements?
When considering prehistorical beliefs we are left with a great deal of speculation because we have no writings upon which to formulate our understanding of how prehistoric people perceived the items and images they left behind. Some commentators argue that in modern times we reason with minds that are totally different from those of our prehistorical ancestors. This suggests that we cannot understand or view things in the same ways as our ancestors. However, such a view dismisses the core of our humanness and how we approach, analyze, and react to the unknown as a species. It also dismisses a key element of belief within Witchcraft, which is reincarnation. In this light we still possess the collective soul experience, which means we were once our ancient ancestors. Therefore, as Witches, we can access the older understanding of the ancient beliefs and practices that are recorded as soul memories. See chapter 8 for further information regarding such methods.
While we as modern humans like to think of ourselves as being highly evolved, beyond our prehistoric ancestors, we are in fact still just as subject to the primal or primitive part of our brains. History reveals that humans are still motivated by the same drives, goals, and ambitions today as they were thousands of years ago. Ancient Greek plays are as relevant today to human society and behavior as they were in the time period in which they were written. Is it then reasonable to assume that, thousands of years before these ancient writings, humans were completely different? It is more likely that the ways in which our prehistoric ancestors thought and perceived were not as alien to us, as a species, as some commentators like to think.
We know that humans build upon existing ideas and concepts. One of the earliest writings in Western literature, the Theogony, demonstrates this fact. In this writing, the author Hesiod refers to an elder race of gods (the Titans) who existed before the rise of the gods of Olympus. Hesiod patterns the Olympic gods after the categories of the Titans, demonstrating an ongoing human tradition of passing along knowledge and information in an established format. To Hesiod, who wrote sometime around the seventh or eighth century bce, the Titans were an almost forgotten race of gods from an earlier and half-remembered era. From where then did the earlier beliefs regarding the Titans originate in this misty past? Were they not based upon earlier prehistoric beliefs that came before them? It would seem reasonable to assume such to be the case, and the commonality of the human experience to be the uniting factor.
In the remainder of this chapter we will explore the primal concepts that evolved into religion in a manner that views everything as connected along a line of evolution. We will not view the things we examine as having no relationship or connection as generations passed through the ages. Instead we will approach this as though humans passed on their religious concepts in the same manner as they passed on everything else related to their society and technology. It would seem odd to consider it in any other fashion, for even on a mundane level, the arrow that was once the spear is not unrelated to the tool, the concept, or the need. In a metaphorical sense, this applies as well to religious thought and conception.
The world of our ancestors was one filled with mystery and wonder. Imagine not knowing or even having any idea of what the moon and the sun were in the sky. What kept them there and how did they move about? Where did they go when they disappeared beneath the horizon? Who or what created them? Humans, being naturally curious beings, no doubt spent much time wondering about these and many other things.
In time it became apparent that the mysterious world operated in patterns. The most noticeable ones presented themselves in the seasons and the migration of birds and animals. Later, when humans turned to farming (becoming less dependent upon the animals they hunted) the growing cycle of the crops was well noted. What appears to be apparent from ancient writings is a belief that a spirit or a deity was somehow involved in the cycles and processes of this mysterious world.
Images and statues were created to depict these unseen beings. A system of appropriate offerings was constructed, and a type of veneration or worship arose. These were all attempts at communication, supplication, and alliance building. Some individuals within the early tribes seemed more attuned to the unseen world and its beings, and these people performed what might be called religious or spiritual tasks for the tribe. Various examples of this commonality in diverse human cultures are the European shaman, American Indian medicine man or woman, and the African witch doctor. For the purposes of this chapter we are interested in the European witch.
The earliest written references in Western culture to Witches can be found in ancient Greek literature. Here such figures as Medea are priestesses of Hecate (a Titan) and are involved in themes related to magic, herbalism, and divination. They frequently live in rural settings away from the developed towns and cities. From where did the concepts associated with Witchcraft in ancient times originate? What were the origins of the ascribed beliefs and practices associated with these Witches? How did the Witches come to embrace them? The simplest answer is that such things were passed along from earlier periods of European Paganism, and were eventually formed into a sect that came to be called Witches. But what were these earlier concepts and beliefs?
Prehistoric ReligionIt is difficult to know precisely what prehistoric humans intended when they buried their dead with various objects, or when they colored the body with red ocher. Some commentators suggest that such acts were designed to protect the living from the dead, while others believe that this indicated a belief in an afterlife where the departed would require his or her personal belongings. In either case there appears to be a rooted belief that death does not exterminate the vitality of the departed individual.
The phenomena of dreaming may have caused early humans to believe in another world beyond this one, but similar in many ways. In the dream world we encounter various situations in a realm similar to the waking world, but one in which magical things happen. It is not uncommon in a dream for an object to turn into something different by itself. In dreams we can fly, breathe under water, and perform many tasks not possible in the waking world. What would primitive humans have made of this strange realm?
A person who is asleep looks very much like someone who is dead. This fact may also have established a connection between the absence of animation in this world and the reanimation in another. If one can appear dead (the dreamer) and yet experience another existence (the dream world) then perhaps actual death is much the same. In this light it is not unreasonable to conclude that primitive humans believed in the survival of the individual who physically died in the waking world.
The creation of figurative art, evidenced as early as 30,000 bce, demonstrates that humans of this period were conscious of symbolism and personification as a form of communication. Here also are signs of ritual process and the connection between desire and the manifestation of desire through the ritual expression of themes. This strongly suggests a belief that ritual/magical actions can influence those forces that operate the natural world and its phenomena. Burial customs also suggest a belief that each world had some degree of influence upon the other. Here we begin to see what modern humans might call religion, a word derived from the Latin religare, meaning to tie together.
Primitive burial mounds featured a relatively small hole. The general view is that this hole allowed the spirit to come and go as it pleased. A more mystical view is that it allowed the light of the waking world to enter as well as the light of the dream world (the moon). In any case, burial mounds would continue to carry Otherworld connotations throughout the passing centuries, eventually being viewed as faery mounds. A woodcut appearing in a pamphlet on Scottish Witchcraft, circa 1591, depicts a group of Witches standing over a mound. Inside the mound are three tiny adult characters feasting at a table, in front of which appears a full-size man lying on the floor (Normand, Lawrence, and Gareth Roberts. Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000). Some commentators view this as the depiction of a faery mound.
The placement of personal effects in the burial place of the dead can be viewed as an act of appeasement as well as preparation. In other words, it is an act designed to maintain the good favor of the deceased so that he or she wishes no ill on the living. This basic concept appears in archaic Roman religion (itself derived from Etruscan religion) where we find spirits known as Manes (mah-nays). The Etruscans inherited the earlier Neolithic concepts, which then evolved into a more formalized and structured religion.
The Manes were essentially good spirits of the dead, often identified with ancestral spirits. In the earliest period the Manes were believed to live in or around the burial site. In order to assure a good relationship, offerings were frequently given to the Manes. Neglecting to do so could evoke their ill will, which is a theme also seen later in faery lore.
The persistence of prehistoric traditions and primitive conceptions well into the Hellenistic and Roman period is noteworthy when we consider the foundation of Witchcraft as a Mystery Tradition. Writers of these periods were often astonished by the survival of prehistoric ritual customs reflected in grotto cults and the continued appearance of pictorial engravings. Here survival themes readily appeared in the animistic concept of the supernatural, house-shaped tombs, the importance of divine signs, and a divinatory focus.
Another aspect of prehistoric religion is centered on what is called the Cult of Bone. Since bones were eventually all that survived the decomposition of a body, they held special significance. The skull in particular held much meaning for a variety of reasons, and featured prominently in ancient Celtic religion (explored in later chapters). The preservation of bones is widespread in cultures throughout the world. This Pagan practice was even adopted by Christianity and incorporated in the cult of saints, which featured the veneration of bones and other body relics.
The strong focus on the dead implies another idea related to the afterlife. Prehistoric symbols associated with death include the vulture, owl, boar, and dog. These creatures continued to be associated with Underworld themes and deities well into the late Roman era, and in folklore themes through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and into modern times. The appearance in folklore of what many call the White Lady or White Woman seems rooted in these ancient concepts. The White Lady is said to shapeshift into an owl or a vulture, and to be accompanied by a hound. The boar was a favored sacrificial animal to chthonic deities.
The White Lady is said to possess two aspects. She is the messenger of approaching death, and the taker of life. In folklore she appears three times in or near the home of one who is to die soon. Either the sound of an owl or the howling of a dog accompanies her appearance. This may be related to an ancient belief in the soul snatchers, which were supernatural birds that gathered to capture the soul as someone died.
Prehistoric images strongly suggest a belief in a female deity of death and regeneration. In time a goddess known as Hecate (as we've seen, a Titan from prehistoric times) arises in connection with death, souls of the dead, and roads that lead to the Underworld. In her first literary appearance (Hesiod's Theogony) she is a great goddess honored by Zeus. She presides over three realms: the sky, the earth, and the sea. Hesiod writes that Zeus did not take anything away of all that was her portion among the former Titan gods. He goes on to say she holds, as the division was at the first from the beginning, privilege both in earth, and in heaven, and in sea. This indicates that Hecate maintained her prehistoric attributes even into the literary period. In the classical writings, Hecate is depicted as the goddess of Witches, patroness of sorcerers and sorceresses, and guardian of the entrances into the Underworld.
The Ancient WorldIn the popular text now known asThe Charge of the Goddess (which features the Goddess addressing her followers) we read I am the beauty of the green earth, and the white moon among the stars, and the mystery of the waters. . . . Here we see a reference to three realms associated with the Goddess: earth, heavens, and waters (just as we saw in Hesiod's writings related to Hecate).
As noted earlier the ancients believed in a cosmic structure consisting of three worlds. This appears in southern European mythology as Ouranos (Overworld), Gaia (Middleworld), and Pontos (Underworld). In northern Europe it is depicted as Gwynvyd, Abred, and Annwn (or by some accounts Ceugant, Gwynvyd and Abred).
Our ancestors believed that various deities possessed power over the sun and moon, as well as the forces of Nature such as earthquakes. In prehistoric times our ancestors believed that the phenomena itself was a god or a goddess, evidenced by the primal attributes of the Titans. In order to appease the great deities, a system of appropriate offerings was designed. In the earliest of times the offering of a human sacrifice was practiced. This was replaced, in time, by animal sacrifice, which itself was later replaced by plant sacrifice in the form of offering first fruits and harvested grain.
Benevolent spirits as well as malevolent spirits were believed to roam the land. Sometimes these were spirits of the dead and other times they were the departed souls of the living. Offerings could be made to ensure good relations or at least to keep peace in play. For even those beings that dwelled in the Otherworld could return among the living on certain occasions. As time passed, other realms of existence were conceived and each had its unique concerns.
The highest world was that which contained the sun, the moon, and the stars. This realm was called the Overworld, for it stretched above the earth, covering it from horizon to horizon. Here dwelled the most powerful deities, who sometimes created kingdoms on top of the highest mountains of the earth. However, it was among the distant stars that the true home of the high deities was set.
The Middleworld was the realm of mortal beings. Our ancestors believed that it floated in a great abyss, was carried on the back of a giant, or was held aloft from underneath by the branches of a great tree. Because this realm was situated between the Overworld and the Underworld it was visited by beings from both realms. Our ancestors believed that these beings possessed power over everything and everyone in the Middleworld.
The lowest world was deep in the earth or in the depths of the sea. Here dwelled the deities of the Underworld to whom the sun, moon, and the departed souls of the living returned. It was also from the Underworld that they all returned back to the world of the living. In the west was the gate of entering, and in the east was the portal of return. As we shall see in later chapters, the western quarter, the ocean, and water in general all have strong ties to the Underworld.
Our ancestors connected divine power, and often some magical properties, to various things that came into contact with the three realms. Thus the sun and moon were held in high regard, as were the mountains that seemingly touched the sky. Clouds, lightning, wind, and other things connected to the sky were also given legendary or mythical attributes. Our ancestors believed that the deities of the Overworld sometimes communicated with humankind through signs in the sky such as meteors, solar/lunar eclipses, or various weather phenomena. Because birds flew in the sky they were frequently viewed as messengers of the Overworld deities.
The Middleworld, like the Overworld, also had its mystical connections. Trees, naturally rooted in the earth, were believed to possess special qualities, as were all plants in general (and herbs in particular). We know that many ancient people worshipped trees, especially the oak and ash. The tree held special significance because it was rooted in the Underworld and its branches extended up toward the Overworld. Birds, the messengers of the gods, landed in trees and made their nests there, which further connected the tree to the Overworld. The roots of the tree extended into the Underworld where they drew the secrets from this mysterious realm. Therefore the tree knew the will of the gods on high, and the secrets of the gods below. In the Middleworld it stood as a bridge (and in some tales as a doorway) between the Worlds.
The Underworld also had its connections to power and magic. Caves and crevices were believed to be doorways or entrances into the Underworld and were therefore magical thresholds. In the cave were often pools of water, and streams frequently issued forth from crevices. Lakes, oceans, and wells extended down into the earth, which also connected them to the Underworld. Oracle powers were associated with caves and crevices, being viewed as the speaking mouth of the Underworld. Supernatural beings were associated with wells, lakes, and oceans. In most cases these entities were female in form, perhaps due to an association with the fluids of the female body. Some examples are the Lady of the Lake figure and nymphs like Egeria. The latter is associated with streams-particularly in places where they flow directly into lakes.
It is not difficult to understand how the three great realms of the ancient view influenced Pagan beliefs over the centuries. As noted earlier, in ancient mythology Hecate was given power over each of these three realms. In the earliest tales of Hecate she grants special favor to herders, farmers, and fisherman. In later times Hecate is maligned and transformed singularly into a dark goddess of the Underworld. By the classical era Hecate is feared and dreaded instead of venerated as in earlier times. Like the Witches who revered her, in the classical period Hecate becomes an unwanted presence erroneously imagined to perform all sorts of ill deeds.
Witchcraft in Ancient Greece and RomeAs mentioned, the earliest records in Western culture to refer to Witches appear in ancient Greek and Roman writings. Witches certainly existed in other areas of Europe, but unfortunately the regional inhabitants were illiterate during this era. Therefore we have no written records through which we can examine Witches or Witchcraft outside of the Aegean/Mediterranean until much later in history.
By the time of the ancient Greeks, prehistoric concepts had evolved into a religion based upon Nature in many ways. The forces of Nature were personified into deities of fields, woods, rivers, springs, oceans, and the phenomena of Nature itself. Spirits were believed to inhabit natural settings as well as objects.
By the classical era the means of communicating with the animating forces of Nature were more refined than in prehistoric times. The use of an oracle became a great focus and a means of communicating with the unseen realm that lay hidden from the waking world. Special individuals were selected to serve in the oracles, and they often bore the title of priest or priestess. Secret societies formed, such as those at Delphi and Eleusis, and only initiates were allowed to partake in the Mysteries. It was into this world that the Witches first appear in recorded writings.
The names used to indicate a Witch in the early Greek and Latin writings are pharmakis and saga, respectively. Pharmakis refers to a person with the knowledge of the pharmaceutical properties of plants (and in the case of Witches such plants were largely herbs). Saga is a term used to indicate a person who practices divination. In other words this is someone who can communicate with the Otherworld, a seer. Here we see the Witch as an herbalist and fortuneteller.
To the Romans the Witch figure was known as a strix, striga, or venefica. The first two words refer to a woman who could transform into a supernatural bird, which was in most cases a screech owl. We encountered the prehistoric roots of this figure earlier in the chapter. The last word (venefica) is a bit more complicated to understand. Venefica shares the same root word vene with such words as venerate (meaning heartfelt) and venereal (meaning from love making or more plainly, an act of physical intimacy). Vene itself indicates a relationship to Venus, originally a goddess of cultivated gardens who became a goddess of love. Originally venefica was a person who made love potions. Over the course of time this became distorted to indicate someone who used poison potions. I refer the interested reader to my previous book The Witches' Craft (Llewellyn, 2002) for a more in-depth study of how and why this took place.
The Aegean/Mediterranean Witch lived in a world of magic, and one in which the gods and goddesses wielded fantastic power. The Witch was an outcast of society living in the herb-clad hills and remote areas away from the civilized areas. Unlike the city dwellers, the Witch worshipped the deities of field and forest, as well as the deities of night and the Underworld. Writers of this era tell us that Witches worshipped such goddesses as Hecate, Diana, and Proserpina.
Scholar Richard Gordon, in his article Imagining Greek and Roman Magic (Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), tells us that groups such as wise women, herbalists, and smiths were largely unaffected by the processes of rationalization and moralization that came with the development of a state religion. All these classes, including the smith, were associated with magic. In Greek mythology a race of smiths known as the Telchines were shapeshifters who imparted useful arts to humankind. In chapter 3 we will encounter the smith as an aspect of the Witches' God.
The writers on classical Witchcraft depict Witches using cauldrons, olive-wood wands, spinning tops or wheels, a variety of plants, and invocations to the moon, stars, and various goddesses. The list of goddesses includes Hebe, Tellus/ Gaia, Venus, Diana, Hecate, and Proserpina. Witches of this era were also believed to possess the power to draw the moon down from the night sky.
The ancient writers Horace, Lucan, and Ovid refer to drawing the moon down as a ritual magical act. Horace, in his classic work titled The Epodes, states that this is accomplished by chanting specific words from a book. Aristophanes made fun of this art and apparently believed it was a charlatan trick of some sort. He was an academic who was cynical of the beliefs of the common people of his period regarding (among other things) the popular view of Witches and Witchcraft. We have the same type of academic personalities in our own modern era. This demonstrates that the disbelief of scholars is indeed as ancient as the very things they disbelieve.
In Magic, Witchcraft & Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds (Oxford University Press, 2002), Daniel Ogden mentions Sophocles' reference to Witches and nudity. Sophocles, in his work Rhizotomoi, describes a Witch reaping herbs in the nude. Ogden also notes Ovid's reference to the Witch Medea (in his Metamorphoses) performing magic in an open dress. Historian Ruth Martin, in Witchcraft and the Inquisition in Venice 1550-1650 (Basil Blackwell, 1989), states that it was common during the Renaissance period for Italian Witches to recite their conjurations in the nude with their hair loose around their shoulders. We also have, in 1375, the Witch trial of Gabrina Alberti, who confessed to going out at night, removing her clothing, and worshipping the brightest star in the sky. Could this all be the continuation of a long-standing ancient tradition?
Ovid, in his work titled Fasti, notes the ancient practice of ritual nudity by the worshippers of the god Faunus. Faunus (in the tale told by Ovid) demands that his followers gather nude at his festivals. Ovid also notes that the ancient cult of the Luperci regularly performed nude rituals at the festival of Lupercus. Modern scholar Ronald Hutton states that No known cult in the ancient world was carried on by devotees who all worshipped regularly in the nude like the Witches portrayed by Leland and inspired by Gardner (The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. Blackwell Publishers, 1991). However, the references we've seen in this chapter seem to suggest otherwise.
Another feature of Aegean/Mediterranean Witchcraft is the importance of the crossroads. In ancient times a crossroad was where three roads met and formed a Y figure. A pole was set where the roads intersected and three masks where hung upon it to represent the goddess Hecate. Each mask faced one of the paths. From this practice arose a sort of nickname for Hecate, which was Trivia (meaning of the three ways).
The crossroads were traditionally places where magic was performed to chthonic deities and spirits of the night. It was also believed that the souls of people who died unjustly or unavenged haunted the crossroads. They could be called upon to assist sorcerers and sorceresses against their own enemies because the souls were of a vengeful nature themselves. This type of magic has come to be viewed as black or dark magic.
Another interesting aspect of Witchcraft in the Aegean/Mediterranean is the Witches' preference for bronze over iron or steel. Even well into the late Roman period writers describe Witches cutting herbs with bronze sickles, and iron is considered taboo. The aversion to iron in association with magic is widespread through most of continental Europe and the British Isles.
Witchcraft and the World ofDue to the lack of written records it is difficult to describe or establish what Witchcraft was like in northern Europe before the arrival of the Romans. However, we can look for clues about the religious and magical practices of northern European tribes in the written accounts of various Greek and Roman writers. We can also look at the unique elements found in northern Europe and apply the principle of transmitted generational teachings from which we can work backwards to reconstruct a reasonable model.
As in southern Europe, the world known to the Witches of the north was one of magic. The inherent powers and forces residing in Nature directed the course of things for better or worse. Spirits controlled or greatly influenced various events, and certain people possessed the ability to work in partnership with them. These people came to be known as Witches.
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that the Germanic tribes were divided into two main cults. One formed around the theme of symbolic atonement and the other had more of a shamanic nature. According to Tacitus, the Germanic people regarded women as predisposed to prophetic powers, and the priestesses held significance in the tribal structure. Divination was performed using strips of wood cut from nut-bearing trees. Symbols or sigils were marked on the strips, and over the course of time these evolved into runic symbols we know today (Greenwood, Susan. The Encyclopedia of Magic & Witchcraft. London: Lorenz Books, 2001).
Tacitus describes the English tribes in the same way as the Germanic. He also adds that they worship an earth mother goddess whom he names as Nerthus. The Nordic tribes are depicted as more sophisticated and possess a cosmic view of nine worlds that include the realm of the gods known as Asgard. Asgard is connected to the other worlds by a rainbow bridge.
Among the Anglo-Saxons we find the mystical principle known as Wyrd. This is an all-powerful force of destiny. The word itself can be used to indicate not only destiny but also raw energy and prophetic knowledge. Wyrd is, in the Mystery Tradition of Witchcraft, the essential and magical property that interconnects all things. This is the world that the Witches of northern Europe arise within, and inherit the evolved Neolithic concepts of their distant ancestors.
The Witch is an interesting figure, particularly in England. Traditions regarding Witches are rooted deep in antiquity. In Kent, England, there is a megalithic chamber tomb called Kit's Coty. For centuries it has been held that Witches raised the tomb. Another legend is associated with the Rollright Stones of Oxfordshire, England. The tale is told that a king rode with his knights to reach Long Compton. Were he to reach this place the king would control all of England. A Witch appeared and directed him to a nearby hill, but before he could reach it, the king and his men were transformed into the standing stones. Whether the Witch in this tale was a villain, or a hero who saved England, is a matter of perspective.
According to historian Jeffrey Russell (A History of Witchcraft. Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1980) the earliest reference to a Witch in England appears in a ninth-century trial, and here the word wicca is first recorded. Wicca is the root origin of the word Witch in the English language. In the context of the trial the reference is to the user of magic, which is not surprising because Witchcraft is also a magical system. Russell argues for the separation of words used to denote a witch and a magic user, saying the two are distinct but were confused with one another. Historians and archaeologists spend a great deal of time and energy trying to separate magic/sorcery and Witchcraft as well as other things that the Witch as a practitioner knows to be inseparable.
In the British Isles the influence of Celtic culture influenced the beliefs and practices of Witches living in these lands. One of the most long-lasting influences came from the ancient Faery faith. The Witch inherited a world that bordered the mystical realms of the Elven and Fae Race. Doorways and mystical mists that appeared and then vanished called to the woodland Witch. In the deep wooded places the Witch learned the music of the sidhe, an ancient race of immortal faeries, which could suspend or accelerate time itself.
The realm in which the Elven and Fae races dwell is often called the Otherworld. In Celtic lore it was a place where some mortals could go, sometimes during life, and after death as well. In some ways this offered mortals an alternative to the Underworld formed by human concepts. The attraction of the Otherworld, and its mystical call, persisted well into Christian times and appears in the tales of King Arthur. Perhaps this is, in part, something that author R. J. Stewart wrote of: The Otherworld was not a place of gloom and suffering, but of light and liberation. The Sun was as much the god of that world as he was of this (T. W. Rolleston, Celtic Myths and Legends. Dover Publications, 1990). It is noteworthy also that the concept of an Underworld depicted as dark, lifeless, and menacing does not appear until the late Bronze Age (Baring, Anne, and Cashford, Jules. The Myth of the Goddess; Evolution of an Image. London: Arkana, 1993).
The Witches' WorldWithin Witchcraft we find a sacred oral tradition reflective of our history from the perspective of we who have lived it. This is often in opposition to the view of many historians who essentially believe that what is not documented therefore never existed (see appendix 3). Witches, on the other hand, tend to view things in a less rigid manner.
According to the oral tradition of Witches, we were once the priests and priestesses of a peasant Pagan religion. Members of this secret sect met at night beneath the full moon, for these were the misfits and outcasts who did not fit into mainstream society. Little has changed over the centuries and the Witchcraft community still embraces individuals frequently rejected in mainstream society. These include gays, lesbians, transgendered individuals, and other people with the courage to live their lives authentically in accord with who they are inside their hearts, minds, and spirits.
Historian Albert Grenier wrote on a similar topic in his book The Roman Spirit in Religion, Thought, and Art (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926). Here Grenier spoke of a quasi-order of social misfits and outcasts in ancient times. Grenier states that gods of the streets, fields, roads, and crossroads take such people under their protection, and of these deities Grenier writes:
About their altars on the cross-roads they collect all the vagabonds, all those who have no family, no hearth, no worship of their own. Their humble devotees combine to celebrate their feasts as best they can, forming Colleges of the Crossroads, collegia compitalicia.
In ancient Witchcraft the teachings were passed to apprentices from those masters who learned from the first Witches. Nature and the spirits and deities of Nature taught these first masters. They were educated and trained in the deep wooded places. Their instructors were the hills, rocks, ancient forests, and other entities that arose when the earth itself was young. Here amidst the scent of primeval forests moist beneath the full moon, the Old Ones called to the Witches from a distant age.
Ancient Witches favored the rural places where the deities of field and forest, sun and moon, were still venerated. Hesiod, in his Theogony, wrote that he was not of the oak and stone when he tried to depict himself as more sophisticated and inspired directly by the Muses sent to him by the gods of Olympus. Here we see a distinct division between the rustics of the country and the refined city dwellers. The cities had succumbed to official religion, sanctioned and influenced by those who held political power. This offered little if anything of interest to the Witch. Witches have always danced to an older and different tune, and so it continues to this very day.
The Witches' world was one of Nature veneration, and of honoring the Horned God of the forests and his consort, the Moon Goddess. The stag antlers of the Lord of the Woods were shaped with crescent-formed branches, denoting his betrothal to she who wore the crescent on her brow. As a sign of her love the Goddess brought the Full Moon over the forest to shed its light upon the branches. There, backlit by the soft light of the moon, the tree branches took on the appearance of antlers, a token of honor to the Horned God of the woods from she who moved above in the night sky. Here in the dark woods the God and Goddess kept their ancient covenant.
The Horned God and the Crescent-Browed Lady taught magic to their Witches. He taught of stone, fire, drum, and flute. She taught of torchlight, misty smoke, starry night, and cauldron. Together they led their Witches through doorways that entered other realms beyond the imagination of those whose world was of the sun's light.
In the Otherworld there was no realm of punishment or dread, for such concepts arose from those whose religions grew in the cities. The Witch saw neither evil nor good in Nature, but instead he or she perceived an intelligence that restored and maintained order and the repetition of endless cycles. To the Witch, forces both seen and unseen participated in this magical process. Just as this world had its magical people (the Witches), so too did the Otherworld (the Elven or Fae). Together they worked between the worlds in common cause, and many believed that the Elven/Fae and the Witch were of a similar race. Even well into the Renaissance period Witches were believed to interact with elemental spirits of earth, air, fire, and water (among others). Francesco Guazzo mentions this in Compendium Maleficarum, published in 1609.
Examining the things associated with Witches that appear in Western literature for well over 2,500 years, we find some interesting connections to ancient themes. The classical creatures associated with Witches are the frog, toad, snake, and the owl. These creatures appear in cave art, Neolithic pottery, and iconography in conjunction with lunar symbolism. In later times the cat, bat, and mouse become associated with Witches. All of these creatures are active at night and largely move about unseen, which gave them an air of mystery.
The concept of the Witch's familiar spirit is rooted in the animal spirit of Neolithic religion. The tribal totem animal or animal guide is an earlier reflection of the relationship between the Witch and his or her spirit ally. In many Witch trials, particularly those of the British Isles, the records indicate a belief among those accused of Witchcraft that the familiar is passed down from Witch to Witch. The records indicate that typically this occurred within family lines. I refer the interested reader to my previous book The Witch's Familiar (Llewellyn, 2003).
In this chapter we have looked briefly at the prehistoric influences on European Paganism. In this we have seen glimpses of the subsequent influence of European Pagan concepts regarding the beliefs and practices of pre-Christian Witchcraft. Now we must turn to deeper examination of the Mystery Teachings that are the core essence of Witchcraft as a religion and spirituality. In the next chapter we will encounter the foundation of the Mystery Tradition of Witchcraft.